6 Mar 2014

How long has Russia been planning its Crimea intervention?

Veteran Russia-watchers predicted the crisis in Crimea years ago with eerie accuracy. Their analysis suggests that Vladimir Putin may not pull his troops out in a hurry.

Russian soldiers in Sevastopol (Reuters)

Some observers think the Russian president’s decision to send troops into the Crimean peninsula was a spur-of-the-moment reaction to events in Kiev.

But others saw the Russian occupation of Crimea coming years ago, and predicted how events would unfold with remarkable accuracy.

Back in 2010 British-born Ukraine expert Taras Kuzio warned that the region could be “Europe’s next flashpoint“, and suggested a number of scenarios that Russia could use to engineer a takeover.

One of them – “sending security forces and Black Sea fleet personnel camouflaged as local paramilitaries to occupy Sevastopol in an overnight operation” – describes almost exactly what is thought to have happened last week.

As long ago as 2008, shortly after Russia and Georgia clashed in the South Ossetia war, the US academic Leon Aron warned that “Russia’s next target could be Ukraine”.

Mr Aron, director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute, also thought the flashpoint would be the City of Sevastopol, home of Russia’s Black Sea fleet and a large ethnic Russian majority.

“An early morning operation in which the Ukrainian mayor and officials are deposed and arrested and the Russian flag hoisted over the city should not be especially hard to accomplish,” he wrote.

“Once established, Russian sovereignty over Sevastopol would be impossible to reverse without a large-scale war, which Ukraine will be most reluctant to initiate and its Western supporters would strongly discourage.”

Again, the words are eerily close to the real events reported in Crimea last week.

In 2008 the then French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner also warned of Ukraine being next on Russia’s list in the aftermath of the conflict in South Ossetia.

Why were many experts not surprised by the events of recent days? Because, they say, Russia has long coveted the Crimea, and it has a long history of creating or exploiting instability to take control of territory in neighbouring countries.

‘Not even a country’

Crimea was transferred from Russia to Ukraine in 1954 and remained part of the country after Ukraine declared independence in 1991, despite having an ethnic Russian majority.

A year later Russia called the transfer of the Crimea “illegal”. Many Russian politicians since then have called for the peninsula to be returned to Russia, calling Ukraine’s borders an artificial construct of the Soviet era.

Where previous Russian leaders like Boris Yeltsin failed to support pro-Russian sentiment in Crimea, Russian nationalism in Crimea experienced a resurgence under Vladimir Putin.

The former mayor of Moscow Yuri Luzhkov, said to be close to Mr Putin and to Ukraine’s ousted pro-Russian leader Viktor Yanukovych, was among a number of Russian nationalist politicians who visited the Crimea to promote a separatist message.

Mr Putin dismissed Ukraine as “not even a country” in conversation with the then US president George W Bush in 2008, an attitude Dr Kuzio says is typical of Russian attitudes towards its neighbour.

He told Channel 4 News: “Russians have a terrible blind spot. They don’t recognise the Crimea as part of Ukraine, and they have never respected Ukrainian sovereignty generally.

“They just don’t see Ukraine as a separate country. They don’t see themselves intervening in a foreign country.”

Russian army choir in Sevastopol (Reuters)

Black Sea shenanigans

The presence of the Russian Black Sea fleet in Crimean naval bases leased from Ukraine has long been a divisive factor, Dr Kuzio says.

Russian military personnel have been accused of flouting the terms of the lease agreements by carrying out activities outside their bases, and indulging in espionage and dirty tricks aimed at undermining Kiev’s control of the region.

He lists a number of reports of Black Sea fleet personnel disguising themselves in civilian clothes to hold pro-Russia rallies, broadcasting propaganda on local television stations and bugging the mobile phones of Ukrainian state officials.

Dr Kuzio said: “Russian public opinion has never accepted Sevastopol and the Crimea as part of Ukraine. They have been interfering in a variety of covert ways for quite a long time.

“These kind of shenanigans always get ratcheted up when the people in power in Ukraine are pro-Western.”

‘Frozen conflict’ strategy?

Leon Aron’s 2008 analysis speculated that Russia might use local nationalists or its own soldiers in disguise to create an armed conflict in Crimea, provoke a response from Ukrainian forces, then use the excuse of protecting ethnic Russians to invade.

This would follow a similar pattern allegedly seen in so-called “frozen conflict” zones like Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria – disputed border regions where Russia has de facto military control following ethnic conflict.

In all these regions Russia was accused of promoting violent separatism, handing out Russian passports to local people, then using the safety of its citizens as an excuse to station troops in the regions indefinitely.

Bernard Kouchner said in 2008 that it was common knowledge that Moscow had also been distributing Russian passports in Crimea, in an ominous sign that this strategy was set to be repeated when circumstances allowed.

But the lack of bloodshed so far in Crimea may have wrong-footed Moscow, denying it the opportunity it seized in Georgia to launch a full-scale intervention.

Dr Kuzio says the new leaders of Ukraine have “played their hand really well” by refusing to be provoked into a “hot war”. There are “more differences than similarities” with the South Ossetia crisis, where Georgia gave Russia an excuse to retaliate, he said.

He believes that the lack of widespread unrest in Crimea, and the relatively muted response from separatists to the arrival of Russian troops, may have taken Mr Putin by surprise.

Others echo the view that Mr Putin has had to react opportunistically to changing events. In a recent article, Dr Aron says Moscow has been “gradually escalating the pressure on Ukraine, seeing what works and what does not, pausing and looking over his shoulder at the response from the west”.

But there remains good evidence that Russia has had the Crimea in its sights for a long time and may be reluctant to let go now.

Dr Kuzio predicts that the Crimea could end up with the same kind of stand-off we see in other frozen conflicts, with the Ukrainian government refusing to extend Russia’s lease of the Black Sea bases, but Russia continuing to occupy the territory illegally – and daring the world to challenge it.